If you didn’t already know that Elisabeth Moss was a great actress, you’d get a pretty good sense of that from the very first scene of The Invisible Man. Wide awake at three-in-the-morning, she quietly releases herself from the man sleeping beside her, rises from their bed and, after a few ominously involved precautions, slips out into the night. The filmmaking is tightrope-taut, with elegant movements of the camera and edits that cut like a razor. But it’s Moss who makes this woman’s terror your own, with her skittery movements, tightened muscles and air of persistent panic, as if she were forever preparing herself for an attack from behind. Her name is Cecilia Kass, though it will be some time before we know this; here, writer-director Leigh Whannell sympathetically suggests, is a woman robbed of her personhood. She’s been planning her bold escape for a while, and for good reason: the house, overlooking a stretch of the Pacific coast, is essentially a maximum-security fortress, a modernist maze of surveillance cameras that speak to the ruthlessly controlling mind of their owner. Who is Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy scientist and sadistic abuser who, upon realizing that Cecilia has left him, devises one hell of a revenge scheme.
That isn’t a spoiler, not even close to it. A smart and satisfying piece of work, The Invisible Man has its roots in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, which was previously adapted into James Whale’s great 1933 film. It’s ostensibly the latest in Universal Pictures’ reboots of one of its classic horror properties, but happily, it has nothing in common — in terms of plot, style or quality — with 2017’s abysmal update of The Mummy. Instead it’s elegant and diabolically poised, a familiar story expertly retooled for an era of tech-bro sociopathy and #MeToo outrage, but also graced with an insistently human pulse. Studio brand extensions rarely feel this intimate, this personally unnerving. In effectively turning the story into a gaslighting thriller with shades of Fatal Attraction and Sleeping With the Enemy, Whannell more or less eliminates any sense of doubt or ambiguity at the outset. He abandons the element of surprise, following the Hitchcockian logic that suspense is the better investment by far. And with that suspense comes total investment. It doesn’t take Cecilia or the audience long to figure out what’s going on: Adrian, a genius in the field of optics and a full-blown sociopath, is stalking her in some way. We are fully with Cecilia from the get-go, even as her loved ones become convinced she’s losing her mind.
And you can’t really blame them. Two weeks after Cecilia’s escape, Adrian turns up dead in an apparent suicide. The fact that he left Cecilia a $5 million inheritance — as read and explained by Adrian’s brother and executor, Tom (Michael Dorman) — should be a dead giveaway that something’s up. But Cecilia tries to move on, only to realize, after a few ingenious set pieces and at least two supremely vicious shocks, that Adrian won’t let her. Instead he has devised an intricate physical and psychological trap from beyond the grave, one that ruthlessly closes, steadily squeezes and confines Cecilia. Whether the movie is sending Cecilia up a ladder into a shadowy attic or staging a drag-out melee in an open living room, it’s very clear that Whannell has a keen sense of visual space. Cecilia constantly feels as if she’s been watched. And through that Whannell essentially weaponizes open spaces — doorways, living rooms, hallways — to an unnerving extent. This is not the first time the director has taken on a preposterous sci-fi conceit, as he did with the solid Upgrade (a.k.a the good version of Venom), but his creative contributions to the Insidious series were likely what prepared him most for this particular exercise. When your stalker can follow you anywhere, every house is basically a haunted house.
Yet Whannell’s Invisible Man is a sleek step-up from all of his past horror work. As bloodier mayhem ramps up, the scares here feel less jumpy and cheap than in an Insidious sequel; the cinematography by Stefan Duscio and score by Benjamin Wallfisch are polished to a particularly unnerving gleam to match Adrian’s glassy, shadowy compound. There’s a bit of David Fincher’s Panic Room in the way Whannell’s gliding cameras map out every interior of Alex Holmes’ production design, and maybe a whisper of Gone Girl in the movie’s game of broken-relationship peekaboo. Whannell has fun playing all the virtuosic tricks you can play with invisibility: the doors that open on their own, the footprints that appear where no footprints should. But what makes The Invisible Man rather more penetrating than the usual mainstream freakout, even in those moments when the roughly two-hour narrative risks overextending itself (the plot, and occasionally logic, holes are still there), is that you feel you know the identity of Cecilia’s enemy intimately. His malevolent sense of entitlement feels both personal and palpable. And despite or perhaps because of the expectations of the genre the movie takes on a particular resonance at the moment, partly because it’s implicitly a story about the dangers of not believing women. It’s also a story of female violation and trauma, and the difficulties of working through the trauma with loved ones.
And for some that might sound exploitative, But I’d suggest that the ruthless exploitation of our wounds and fears is one reason some of us go to horror movies in the first place; what matters is how skillfully it’s being done. Early on, before the story is even underway, Cecilia is shown to suffer from agoraphobia as a result of Adrian’s abuse; she’s emotionally and psychologically devastated. Her sister (Harriet Dyer), with whom she has an intriguingly difficult relationship, offers strength but little comfort. Aldis Hodge, brings some warmth and levity to the crucial role of Cecilia’s cop friend, James; as his teenage daughter, Storm Reid is as well no less appealing, even though their characters are mostly just peril fodder.
But even with those side support, there is a convulsive power to the scenes in which Cecilia realizes how profoundly alone she actually is, screaming wildly at an attacker who only she knows is present, and all but daring others around her to call her a liar (or even worse, “hysterical”). Even in these moments though, Moss seems incapable of downplaying Cecilia as just another imperiled scream queen. But she does strengthen is the notion that this is a monster movie, one that’s unusually interested in looking past the toxic-male machinations of its famous character and toward the lasting horrors left in his wake. In other words, the stuff that previous movies, and real life, have sometimes tried to turn invisible. With Elisabeth Moss’ all out central intensity front and center, Leigh Whannell takes The Invisible Man through a course of intelligent, relevant metaphor and builds an elegant, nervy, satisfyingly nasty knockout.